The American Dream (part 2 of 6): Jesus Fernandez

The American Dream is a series of six interviews with European pros, looking back at their experiences of moving to California to pursue skateboarding careers.

Stamina ad, switch kickflip, Los Angeles, 1999. Ph. Seu Trinh.

Interview by Arthur Derrien

How old were you when you decided to move to California and what were some of the reasons you decided to give it a shot?
Jesus Fernandez: I was 21. I’d been there a couple times before but it had been for quick vacations… My brother Alfonso was going with Dani (Lebron) so it felt like a good idea. I guess going together made it feel a bit less scary. Moving over there on your own would be kind of nuts.
What were the reasons… I think my age was a big factor actually. Like we had nice families and good lives and stuff in Spain but at that point we felt like we didn’t really have that much to lose, if you know what I mean? Like we weren’t good at school and we didn’t have jobs or anything… We were young and all we cared about was skating and having fun, and that seemed like a lot of fun.

Did you have a lot of money saved up for when you’d be out there?
Oh no ha ha. We had a little bit but it ran out way too soon. I think most skaters, especially at that age, are the same you know? We didn’t want to work, all we’d do is skate, but if it were to save money for something like this, like if we had a proper goal, then we would work. Or at least a little bit ha ha.
We were lucky too because in the beginning we were always able to stay with people we’d know from Spain, often with rich families ha ha. That’s why at first it just felt like a very long holiday. Too long even sometimes ha ha, like I stayed the three months but then my brother just stayed illegally!

Why did he choose to stay?
I don’t know! I still ask myself that ha ha. We’re brothers, almost twins (there’s just one year between us) but we’re very different. I mean I must have spent so much money going back and forth all those years but I don’t know… I liked it there but not enough to do what he did and not be able to come back for years. I liked being in Spain as well. Plus Lebron would go back and forth with me. It’s hard to remember some of this stuff though… Like how did I manage to get the money to do all those trips? I honestly have no idea ha ha, but I guess we made it work somehow.

But you guys ended up getting flats out there right? How did you manage that then?
I think we got sponsored almost as soon as we tried to move there, like after only maybe two months we got on Neighborhood. We weren’t all there all the time but we’d pay every month. But we’d always have super, super cheap places, and as I said my brother just stayed out there the whole time so it worked.

You had a spot by USC right?
Oh yeah that one was perfect… As soon as we moved there we started skating so much better. Like how we were back in Spain. I think it’s because we could do it all day so our technique got way better. Before that I remember sometimes thinking, ‘how do they do it here with all that driving?’ There we were, literally living three blocks away from the spot, and suddenly we had that thing of being able to just go without calling anyone and we’d know who would be there every day. We became really good friends with all the locals… Not necessarily the sponsored guys or the pros or whatever, just the people that would be there all the time. And lots of them spoke Spanish too!
I remember on some days I’d go with Dani and my brother in the morning, then they’d go home and do other things or whatever and I’d still be there at 10 at night ha ha. Just me and this guy Marvin who was deaf… He was always there, it was sick. Can’t imagine skating for that long now ha ha.

How long did you have that place for?
Two to three years maybe? And honestly on most of the days during that period we were at those USC ledges. Unless we made plans with Chico (Brenes) or something, we’d be there from the morning, sat on the block with a Starbucks coffee ha ha.

How much did you guys pay for rent?
I think we only paid $500 for the whole place, with three rooms. Because it was pretty ghetto you know? Like directly opposite to us was the projects where there’d be shootings, gangs and stuff, but at the same time you had the University there, which was really fancy, so it was a good mix. I remember we had the Stamina boxes as a table ha ha.

Sounds about right ha ha.
It wasn’t all destroyed or dirty or anything though you know? Like it wasn’t a big party house with drugs, one guy throwing up in a corner or something… We were just living cheap.

Frontside noseslide, USC ledges, Los Angeles, 2003. Ph. Theo Hand

Do you remember how much the Neighborhood checks were for? Because sure, a $500 split between three people is super cheap, but weren’t they your only sponsor when you got there?
Yeah. It was just under $1000 I think…

Which is way more than what board most board brands pay now!
Yeah! But it was really different then, there weren’t as many pros or companies. Now it’s insane.

How come the whole Neighborhood thing came to an end? It seemed like you guys had a really good thing going there.
Basically we made a video (La La Land), which was really well received, but for us it was just the beginning and we wanted to do more, film another video, keep things going you know? But they were just happy with that! It was weird, like the filmers didn’t really want to film anymore, plus sometimes we wouldn’t get boards… This was around when I met Chico, who then introduced me to Rick (Howard) and they were basically like, ‘if you ever need boards whatever, hit us up’. Just to help out you know? Actually who am I kidding ha ha, it was our fault. I think deep down we always knew we wanted to skate for Girl. I mean World was sick back then too but Girl and Chocolate were my favourites. Also we just wanted to skate with those guys and be around them you know? And every time I’d skate with Rick or Carroll or Chico, I could feel I’d be skating better. And it wasn’t like, ‘I want to show them what I can do or anything’ ha ha, but just the fact that they’d be there I’d feel a little bit of pressure – and maybe I’d be a bit scared when I’d warm up – but it would motivate me.

I’m sure you probably had a certain idea in your head of what living out there might be like, what would you say were some of your biggest misconceptions about the place?
It’s hard to say, it was all so different to what we’d imagined… That’s what made it so fun!
For instance the spots: I guess from seeing them so much in videos I’d created this crazy image of them in my head. Like the courthouse, I was convinced it was in the middle of this huge park with a big fence around it and all this stuff, which I’d just completely imagined! It’s just this little bit between two blocks. And my first impression of spots was often ‘wow… This is actually really shitty’ ha ha. Like so many of their ledges were really chunky you know?

Ha ha…
Not all of them though. Like you know the old Santa Monica spot? The labyrinth one with all the graffiti?

The Venice Pit?
Yeah that one was actually really good. Obviously it was old and kind of round because you could tell it had been skated for years. But the sound… Grrrrrrrrrrr.

That’s the best thing about old plazas… Just like Hotel De Ville.
EXACTLY. The grind sounds at places like that are so good…
But coming back to your question, another thing that was very different to what I imagined is how all the pros were out there. Like I thought that if I got to see Koston at a spot one day, there was no way I’d get to talk to him. But he was the nicest guy! All the pros were! Every time we’d skate the same spot as them we’d actually skate it together if you know what I mean? Like ‘come on, let’s see who can do this first’ kind of thing. So often I’d find myself wondering ‘wait, is it really the same guy? It can’t be!’ I had that with Tony Ferguson I remember… But yeah so many of the guys I really admired were just so friendly. I really didn’t expect that.

I bet being based by USC probably really helped connect you with people.
Yeah definitely. And before being there the first few days of every trip would feel a little weird… Just because in Spain you’re always bumping into people everywhere and we wouldn’t have that. Like when you just go down to MACBA and know people will be there: I like that spontaneous feeling. But then of course you’d get used to not having it, you’d get used to everything. Even all the driving… And I’d love looking out the window on the sand gaps and seeing all the long palm trees… That was enough to make me happy. Ah and there would be that time in the afternoon when the sun goes down, the light is all orange and it would be the perfect temperature… And the wax would be juuuust right. I loved that; I miss it.
I guess even before the USC place we would just always drive to places like that where you could really skate and hang out all day you know? We went to Lockwood a lot.

Neighborhood ad, fakie crooks, Los Angeles, 1999. Ph. Seu Trinh

Did you ever feel out of your depth out there? As in being so far away from home, going around all these places you didn’t really know… Like there have always been stories of sketchy shit going down at Lockwood for example.
Yeah I’ve heard rumours of people getting their cameras stolen and stuff… But I don’t know, maybe it’s because we didn’t really know about anything or any of the places that we weren’t really scared? Or maybe we were just really lucky? I do remember thinking it was really good that we spoke Spanish though ha ha. Like the few times we did have young guys come up to us like that and it felt like it might be a bit sketchy, you know like saying ‘you, where are you from blah blah’ we’d just be like ‘Que? Que dices?’ and they be like ‘okaaaaay, de Espana!’ And chat to us and be cool, sometimes they’d even come back with beers ha ha. Like, ‘here, for my Spanish friends!’ ha ha.
Honestly thinking about it again all now, we really had the best imaginable time out there.

Your first holiday to LA set the bar pretty high for you too ha ha! Can you tell us a bit about that trip?
Yeah. I think I was about 16 and I went for a month with Enrique Lorenzo and our shop sponsor, and we stayed at Lance Mountain’s house.

How did that come about?
Just because Francisco who had the shop was good friends with Lance I guess.

And by ‘Lance Mountain’s house’ you mean the Mountain Manor right? The one with the mental ramp?
Yeah, the one in Alhambra! The ramp was on a hill like so, it had huge legs on one side and almost no legs on the other side, it was crazy ha ha. I think it’s when he was starting The Firm in his garage. It’s such a shame I didn’t speak English at all, I mean I knew how to say ‘skate’ but for anything else it was signs ha ha. But I could tell he was super cool. The whole thing was insane… I still can’t believe he let us stay with him.

Did you meet him again later on when you ‘moved’ over there?
Yeah I did actually, when I was 21 and my English was a bit better! He came to pick us up in his van… It’s so funny how sometimes you only really remember the good things you know?

Ha ha yeah I think that also really depends on the person.
I guess, but I know there were definitely times when I was over some things, or worried, or even hungry… Because it was a rollercoaster when I was out there, I know it was. But all that stuff is just harder to remember for some reason. Like if I was in my twenties, I’d definitely do it all over again. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

Stamina ad, 2000. Ph. Seu Trinh